On being accused of poverty porn

All the Little Lights

All the Little Lights

I’m not averse to criticism. My ego is relatively small and I am always learning. I usually assume that most people know more than me about most things. So I’m not averse to criticism. I’m open to it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s scary. It takes guts to sit round a table and let people pull apart work that you’ve put your heart into. And it’s hard to ask for feedback, especially when you know that what you’re presenting isn’t yet your best. And especially when you know that the people you’re asking might have different tastes to you. But good, informed, well thought-through feedback usually leads to better work. So in the end it’s a great thing.

Saying that, a while ago I received some feedback from someone well respected that actually offended me. It has played on my mind ever since and was ignited again this week by Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner who wrote a really good article about the relatively new and increasingly used critical term, ‘poverty porn’. I first heard it used in relation to the Channel 4 series BENEFITS STREET* and have since read it in various theatre reviews. And, of course, in this piece of written feedback I received back in 2014.

This person was accusing me of “verging on poverty porn” with a piece I was sharing as part of a festival. It was a work in progress, an early draft of my play ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS. I sat shifting in my seat as the audience received this unfinished version. I expected to be questioned on the form and structure, but I wasn’t expecting the poverty porn thing.

All my plays so far (except one) have been based on people I’ve known and met. I went to school with people from all backgrounds (except possibly the super-rich). There was a girl who became a prostitute working from a house opposite the school gates. There was a girl who lived on the streets when she turned 16. There was a girl who everyone called Gypo who brought her dog to school in a bag once or twice and turned up once on a horse. There was a girl who told me about the abuse she’d suffered as a kid as we drank pints underage and shared a bag of pork scratchings. There was a boy whose grandad woke him up in the morning by standing over his sleep-fuelled hard-on with a wooden stool threatening to smack it down. I mean, we all found this hilarious (we were 15), and in all honesty it might have been a lie. But I suspect it wasn’t.

I don’t pretend to have had a horrible childhood. I grew up in a warm house with both parents, watched musicals, went to my grandparents’ regularly. I had it sweet. But I had close friends and more distant acquaintances that went through a lot. And I saw some of it. And it’s those things that have had the most impact on me. Yes, the stories belong to them – they’re the ones who bear the hurt and heaviness – but they are part of me too, somehow. I don’t think I’m stealing them, they are inside me. And when I write, they are always the things that bubble to the top. I don’t seek to shock. These stories are just where I find truth, I think.

I moved away from my home town a couple of times in my adult life but I’ve always found myself coming back. To be among the people I grew up with and to stand on the streets where I imagine I can still smell Charlie Red and Cinzano and feel the emotions of being an overweight, acne scarred teenager, more than a little desperate to work out who I was. Who I am.

I didn’t have friends who were victims of a sex ring, at least I don’t think I did, but the girls in ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS are based on research I did on child sexual exploitation with charity Safe and Sound and fleshed out with bits of friends I had and people I knew. And I’m in there too of course. I never wanted to exploit anyone in writing it. So when this person accused me of poverty porn it actually made me feel a bit sick. And defensive. And angry.

Joe Doherty in Bones

Joe Doherty in Bones

My first play BONES received critical acclaim at Edinburgh and later on a national tour. It was far from perfect and I was completely new to writing for theatre. But the critics that came loved its rawness and the depiction of this angry boy, lost in a world that doesn’t want him. They mainly loved the performance by Nottingham actor Joe Doherty, who really connected with the character. I’m pretty sure if it premiered this year in the same venue, the term poverty porn would be used by reviewers. But back in 2011, before BENEFITS STREET, no one was really using that phrase in the theatre.

I know we need to take care of our most vulnerable, and I appreciate it’s important we don’t exploit people by making salacious or sensationalist entertainment from their stories. But that’s not what I, or I assume other conscientious playwrights, are aiming to do. I just want to tell stories that I think are important. Sometimes they might be shocking and sometimes they might make people feel uncomfortable.

The same version of the play I shared, the one compared to poverty porn, was very warmly received by the charity I worked with to research the subject. In fact they wanted to use it as an educational tool for their staff, something I had never intended it to be. But instead I rewrote it, focussing on form and structure and adding more light and shade to the characters – all important points in the feedback I received. And it’s a much stronger and more theatrical piece for it. I have had really good feedback from the charity, from social workers and from people who work with victims of sex abuse as well as audience members from all walks of life. And when it tours next year, I hope people from many different backgrounds get to see it.

I understand Lyn Gardner’s point, that maybe it’s more uncomfortable when the play is presented in an affluent area on a stage surrounded by hipsters and middle-class audience members. But I believe plays that help tell stories of vulnerable people (I was going to say ‘give a voice to the vulnerable’ but I thought that sounded slightly patronising) should be staged in all sorts of venues. As Lyn said, “presented carefully, they’re essential reminders of the brutal inequality in modern life”. Surely those reminders are even more essential in areas where it’s easy to walk on by.

Of course I will continue to learn and grow as a writer (and a human), and I will always question what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. My thoughts on this will probably shift and change, as they usually do on everything, and I’m sure I will be more aware of how I present people and situations as a result of this debate. But I hope I never shy away from telling the stories I think are important just because they don’t fit with what’s fashionable in criticism. That would be to lose sight of why I started writing in the first place.

 

* According to Wikipedia: The concept of poverty porn was first introduced in the 1980s, a golden age for charity campaigns. Charity campaigns during this period made use of hard-hitting images such as pictures of malnourished children with flies in their eyes. This quickly became a trend and there were several notable campaigns such as Live Aid. Though some of these campaigns were successful in raising money for charity (over $150 million to help combat famine), some observers criticised the approach, claiming it oversimplified chronic poverty, this apparent sensationalism was dubbed by critics as “poverty porn”.

In the 1980s the media used what some believed to be inappropriate use of children in poverty. However, towards the end of this era more positive images emerged to tell their stories, although, in recent years it has been noticed that the disturbing images are being highlighted once more.